Tornadoes devastate South, killing at least 297

By Holbrook Mohr

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 29 2011 1:00 a.m. MDT

At Smithville Cemetery, even the dead were not spared: Tombstones dating to the 1800s, including some of Civil War soldiers, lay broken on the ground. Brothers Kenny and Paul Long dragged their youngest brother's headstone back to its proper place.

Unlike many neighboring towns, Kenny Long said, Smithville had no storm shelter.

"You have warnings," Long said, "but where do you go?"

Some fled to the sturdy center section of Smithville Baptist Church. Pastor Wes White said they clung to each other and anything they could reach, a single "mass of humanity" as the building disintegrated around them.

The second story is gone, the walls collapsed, but no one there was seriously hurt. The choir robes remained in place, perfectly white.

Eight people were killed in Georgia's Catoosa County, including in Ringgold, where a suspected tornado flattened about a dozen buildings and trapped an unknown number of people.

"It happened so fast I couldn't think at all," said Tom Rose, an Illinois truck driver whose vehicle was blown off the road at I-75 North in Ringgold, near the Tennessee line.

Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said several residential areas had "nothing but foundations left," and that some people reported missing had yet to be found.

A church in Ringgold had its steeple amputated, and its chairs were left twisted and piled in the apartments' parking lot. Elsewhere in the town, cars and pickup trucks sat askew at odd angles after being tossed like toys.

In Trenton, Ga., nearly two dozen people took shelter in an Ace Hardware store, including a couple walking by when an employee emerged and told them to take cover immediately.

Lisa Rice, owner of S&L Tans in Trenton, survived by climbing into a tanning bed with her two daughters. Stormy, 19, and Sky, 21.

"We got in it and closed it on top of us," Rice said. "Sky said, 'We're going to die.' But, I said, 'No, just pray. Just pray, just pray, just pray.'"

For 30 seconds, wind rushed around the bed and debris flew as wind tore off the roof.

"Then it just stopped. It got real quiet. We waited a few minutes and then opened up the bed and we saw daylight," she said.

The badly damaged Moore Funeral Home, meanwhile, sheltered the woman who cleans Larry Moore's family business. When the first of three storms hit and uprooted trees in her yard, she figured the funeral home would be a safer place for her two children. As shingles began sailing past the window, she headed for the basement.

"That's what saved her, I guess," Moore said. "It was over in just a matter of seconds. She called 911 and emergency crews had to help her get out."

The storm system spread destruction from Texas to New York, where dozens of roads were flooded or washed out.

In a large section of eastern Tennessee, officials were looking for survivors and assessing damage. In hard-hit Apison, an unincorporated community near the Georgia state line where eight people died, about 150 volunteers helped with the search.

It was unclear how high the death toll could rise. In Mississippi, Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson and a crew of deputies and inmates searched the rubble, recovering five bodies and marking homes that still had bodies inside with two large orange Xs.

"I've never seen anything like this," Johnson said. "This is something that no one can prepare for."

Mohr reported from Phil Campbell, Ala. Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Tuscaloosa; Phillip Rawls in Montgomery; Vicki Smith in Morgantown, W.Va.; Kristi Eaton in Norman, Okla.; Ray Henry in Ringgold, Ga.; Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C.; Michelle Williams in Atlanta; and Bill Poovey in Chattanooga, Tenn., contributed to this report.

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